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140 Actual Incinerator Way, Apt. 23
Great Inferno Village, FL
Kiss of the White Mistress
“A feast for my dear friends,” Jao mumbled to himself. Only a slight chuckle slipped free as he released a handful of chopped mushrooms into the boiling stew. He’d managed to smuggle them in earlier under the eyes of his guard. The man hadn’t even questioned them, damned fool that he was. He’d entirely failed to notice their tell-tale gilled caps and elongated stalks. They were impossible features for a practiced eye to miss, but the only thing his thug of a guard appeared practiced in was banditry. And murdering the defenseless, of course.
Shadows danced a mad jig on the surrounding earthen walls of the cave as the flames of the cooking fire popped and cracked. Jao hefted his dented and rusting pot and placed it on the rotted tree stump that served as his makeshift table. It was a far cry from his trusty stone and oak countertop back in Akeng, but it would do. For one more night, at least.
He chuckled again, giddy as a child as he patted at his breast pocket. The other goods he’d smuggled in were still there. He’d known they would be, weren’t likely to grow legs and wander off, but their presence was reassuring nonetheless. “Fools’ chew,” the leaves were called, as they bore a strong resemblance the hemp plant. When reduced to resin and consumed with wine, hemp induced fanciful visions and other such fantasies. Fool’s chew, on the other hand, induced nothing more than a surge of bile and a month’s long case of the runs. A foul thing to consume, no doubt, but it’d be a crucial part of executing his revenge.
The stew settled into a calm heat, steam rising in thick curtains as Jao took a steadying breath and stared down into it. A shadowy silhouette stared back up at him. His face, he realized, but different. A ghastly mockery of what it once had been. This was not the face of the man his father had raised. Not the face of the man his little brother had grown up knowing. But it was his face now, like it or not. His confinement here had changed him, bent and hammered him into a fouler and crueler man. Soon, his captors would learn just how foul, and just how cruel. It was almost a blessing, Jao though, that his companions were not here to see it.
Lu Jan had been the first to die. He was new to the caravan, had never made the journey before. Freshwater clams thrived deep within the ever-dark of the swamp they called Murkwater, and rarely a day went by that some trader from Ba Seng didn’t show up to purchase them. Sold for no small amount, did the clams. Still, that meant some poor bastard had to risk the prowling horrors and cannibal tribes of the swamp to go get them. Jao would have been surprised to find that he was that poor bastard, but that was pretty much life, wasn’t it? Could’ve been worse though, he could have been Lu Jan.
When he hadn’t woken for breakfast it had already been too late. They found him swollen and stiff in his sleeping furs, the culprit still clutched in his hands: boroth mushrooms. The gilled caps and elongated stalks of the so called “white mistress” were known to most. Apparently not Lu Jan, however. Once consumed they killed in the span of thirty breaths. There were no warning signs but for a rapid swelling of the throat as the victim died gasping for air.
They’d buried Lu Jan in as deep a grave as the swamp would allow and sent him to meet his ancestors in the next world. He’d been too young to die, they’d all said. The Murkwater had disagreed. There was little mercy to be found in the swamp, many said. Two days later Jao learned how right they were.
He remembered the night in no more than flashes, brief, stark visions that left as quickly as they came. The steaming meal ready to be served. The chatter of his companions as they sat down to eat. The look of surprise of his brother’s face as an arrow thunked into his chest and toppled him to the ground. Jao had frozen then, unable to believe what was happening, unable to process the expanding pool of blood at his boots. His brother had breathed one last rasping breath, and then, for a moment, silence. It shattered beneath an onslaught of charging footsteps, the sound of steel cutting through meat, the screams of his friends. And when the mad rush was over, when the last begging voice behind him was silenced by the wet hiss of metal through flesh, Jao had found himself face to face with that man as he sat in his brother’s spot.
Chuul, he’d said his name was. Could use someone of your talents, he’d continued, wiping blood from the blade of his sword. I’m beyond tired of eating the gruel Tong cooks up.
The walls around Jao blinked back into existence and he was in the shallow cave again, stew cooling before him. The earth around him seemed to lean in, all damp soil shot through with the worming nakedness of tree roots. Perhaps they would whisper a secret to him. Or, perhaps they would smother him. Would end this hell. But no, not yet. He shook the delusions from his mind. Tonight there was work to be done. He smiled at the pale chunks of white mistress floating in the simmering stew, and for an instant, in that shallow hell of a prison, he could swear the stew smiled back.
The white mistress will do her work well, he reassured himself, going through the plan once more. Everyone who partook in the meal would die. They’d have him take the first bite, as usual. He patted his breast pocket. That was where the Fools’ chew came in. One leaf stored in his cheek would be enough. He’d swallow a mouthful of the stew, then the chew. The putrid leaf was sure to send his stomach’s poisonous contents rushing back up his throat. Or, so he hoped. If it didn’t…he thought of Lu Jan, twisted and swollen beneath two strides of damp soil. If it didn’t, at least he’d take his captors with him.
“Cook.” A voice interrupted his plotting and his heart near burst through his chest. “Jao, or something, ain’t it?” One of the bandits had entered the cave, his voice low and uncertain. He was young, probably the youngest of the group. A fledgling beard, looking half-full as it did more due to caked dirt than anything, failed to hide his still boyish features.
“Supper looks good,” he said, leaning over the pot. “Potatoes, carrots, and are those mushrooms?”
“For flavor,” Jao said, fearing for a moment he’d been discovered. He gripped his stirring spoon tighter as if that would do anything. The boy’s hand rested on the hilt of the machete-like sword hanging at his hip. Habit, most like, but whether intended or not, it reminded Jao just how easily any one of his captors could cut him down.
“Look, I’m not here to cause trouble or anything. I just…I just wanted to talk.” He leaned against the wall of the cave and gazed down into the stew, eyes distant as if looking into his past. “I didn’t choose this, you know,” he began. “It was just a few coins here and there, at first. My family needed the money.” He shrugged. “A little job now and again. You do what you have to.”
What you have to, right. Of course. The world was a tough place. Who could blame a man for a bit of thievery? Maybe some banditry here and there. Oh, and why not a heaping portion of murder to top it all off? Had to be done, after all.
Jao forced his expression to be something akin to gentle, but his thoughts held nothing but contempt for the boy, who continued his sob story.
“I never meant to make a life out of this, but times got tough. The wars started, ended, then started again. My father was called on for service three times. Came back every time, too, just like he’d promised. ‘Cept he wasn’t the same the last time.” The boy began to pace. When he’d half turned away, eyes focused on some errant root jutting through the soil walls, Jao slipped the paring knife from the table and tucked the finger length blade into his sleeve. The boy turned and paced back towards the center of the room.
“He’d always been good to us, for the most part, but the wars changed something in him. Broke something in him.” He frowned. “It fell to me to support everyone, and I had to do what I had to do.” The flames of the cooking fire illuminated something resembling regret in the boy’s eyes. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I never wanted to end up here. I just want you to know we’re not all monsters, and,” he turned his eyes from Jao now, “I’m sorry.”
A long silence followed. Maybe the boy was seeking comfort. Seeking to atone for the crimes he’d committed. Maybe he was just feeling guilty and needed to say it aloud. Or, maybe he was just some damned fool boy caught up in something far beyond him. Whatever it was, Jao didn’t care. He’d always tried to do right by others, had tried to be a decent person. But that was before these bastards slaughtered his friends, his family, and imprisoned him here. He’d always tried to do right by others, but the time for that was long past.
“Life’s shit,” he said, then looked up and locked eyes with the boy. “And then you die.”
The boy laughed at that. A sad sort of laugh that brought with it an unmistakable resignation to the unfairness of life.
“You’ve got the right of it there, I’d say.”
You haven’t the faintest idea, Jao barely stopped himself from saying. He wanted nothing more than to tell this boy and his companions what he truly thought of them, but no, that wasn’t quite true. There was something he wanted more, and it was bubbling quietly beneath his nose, waiting to exact its revenge.
Jao emerged from his thoughts into an awkward silence. The boy stood still, as if waiting for him to speak again, or debating if he should himself. After a few long moments, he seemed turned with a nod and left the cave.
Until your apologies can get the arrow out of my brother’s chest, and put the blood back in his veins, you can keep them, Jao thought at the boy’s back.
He scooped the remaining slices of mushrooms into his hand and dumped them into the stew. The dosage was already lethal, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Though, if any did survive their meal, they’d still have to get through him. Jao patted his paring knife. It had a small, simple blade, but it’d punch through flesh just fine. Wouldn’t take much to finish off any survivors, a quick jab to the throat and it’d be over.
Hurry it up in there! We’d hoped to eat at some point tonight,” a voice called from outside the cave. Looking down the tunnel Jao could just make out the light of a campfire and the silhouette of a man. It was the big one, Chuul, leaning in to shout commands at him.
“D’ya hear me, you deaf bastard?”
“Of course, master.”
Laughed roared from without.
“You hear that, boys? Called me ‘master,’ he did!”
“Master of fleas, perhaps,” came another voice, followed by more laughter.
Let them laugh. Jao withdrew a few leaves of fool’s chew and took a deep breath. Careful to avoid touching his tongue with the foul leaf, he maneuvered it into place inside his cheek, tucked up against his back teeth. Nonetheless, a bitter tinge nipped at his gums and they started to burn.
Steam rose from the stew, steeling his nerves and caressing his face as he hefted the pot from the table. His footsteps thudded in the damp soil, then crunched over twigs and the bones of small animals as he neared the tunnel’s exit.
Cool air rushed against him, chilly after the smoky-warm confines of his prison, and he emerged into the night. Above, the sky was cloudless and filled with stars. Reminiscent of the last night he’d spent as a free man. A thousand pinpoints of light had looked down upon him and his companions then, silent witnesses to the massacre that had unfolded. Odds were they’d been the last thing his brother had seen. As far as last things to see before dying went, that wasn’t half bad, he figured. An endless sky filled with light as everything slowly faded to black.
“On with it, now,” Chuul said, waving Jao from his thoughts. The man and his fellow bandits were assembled around the campfire, voices and laughter echoing in stark contrast to the still night.
“What have you prepared for us this night, cook?”
The slight lump of fool’s chew in his cheek seemed to grow to the size of a mountain as Jao worried over his captors spotting it.
“Muskrat and mushroom stew,” he said, careful not to let the chew slur his words.
“Sounds like we’re in for a treat tonight, boys.” Chuul gestured quickly. “Go on, then, serve us.”
Jao set the pot down on a tree stump, careful not to spill any of its contents. Dredging deep with his ladle, he spooned a healthy portion into a wooden bowl and offered it to Chuul.
Have some dinner, friend.
“Don’t play dumb with me, cook, take the first bite, as always.”
The memory of his brother with an arrow in his chest, left cold and still somewhere in the swamp, burned in Jao’s mind. This one’s for you, he thought.
His hands did not shake. No beads of sweat ran down his face. Instead, he simply raised a spoonful of stew to his mouth, and clamped down. No point in shitting himself over the mouthful of death he was swallowing. Wouldn’t help him any. And besides, he’d known this moment was coming. Had prepared himself for it. All he could do now was trust in his plan.
He barely even tasted the bite, just a faint hint of mushroom tickled at his tongue as he eased the food to the back of his mouth and swallowed hard. The stew warmed his body as it fell. Nonetheless, he fought to control a shiver. No longer was the poison an arm’s length away, boiling in the pot. It was inside him, already working towards his end, no doubt. He knew he needed to swallow the fool’s chew he’d stored in his cheek, but he was watched too closely.
Chuul examined him, searching for any sign of distress. Jao stared back, eyes motionless, hiding the fear creeping up his throat. Chuul tilted his head slightly and raised an eyebrow.
“Looks good to me,” another man piped in, breaking the silence and reaching for a bowl.
“No,” Chuul caught his hand in a firm grip, never taking his eyes from Jao. “Why don’t I trust you? You look nervous.” There was a flash and before Jao could even react the cold blade of Chuul’s knife was against his throat. Stale breath washed over him.
“You trying to make a fool of me, cook?”
Jao stared forward, arching his neck away from the blade and trying to hide the fear clawing at his mind. It grew with each moment that passed, every breath another closer to his last. Time was running out before the white mistress finished her foul work. That’d be a damned poor end, choking to death on his own revenge while his captors watched. His stomach squirmed as if rejecting the poison within.
The dagger’s point dug deeper into his throat and a drop of blood escaped down his neck. Chuul leaned in closer, every detail of his face apparent in a crystal clarity despite the dark of the night. The scar dividing his left eyebrow, the poorly shaven beard clinging to his jaw, the wide nostrils enflamed with aggression. Jao stared back at Chuul, but never met his gaze, the last moments of his life ticking away in his thoughts. Twenty-one, twenty-two. The pressure from the dagger increased, point digging a bit deeper. Twenty-three, twenty-four. A second drop of blood leaked down his neck as his stomach revolted, gurgling and shaking now. For one long moment, Jao knew they would hear the sound. Knew they would figure out his plan. But Chuul leaned back with a laugh and drowned out the complaining stomach. He sheathed his knife with a sharp click.
“You wouldn’t cross me, would ya, cook? Not a lick of courage in you to begin with.” He snatched the bowl and spooned a large helping of stew into his mouth. A dribble ran down the side of his chin as he grinned. Without hesitation, the others followed, heads down as they shoveled the stew.
Jao wasted no time in dragging the fool’s chew from his cheek, it’s severe bitterness strangling his tongue. With one massive crunch he bit down on the leaf, suppressed a gag, and forced the juices down his throat, before swallowing the leaf altogether.
“Best decisions I ever made, this cook,” Chuul boasted, swallowing more of the stew.
Jao wanted to smile, but the rebellion in his stomach had grown too much. He tried to swallow again, to keep the bile down longer to ensure everyone ate as much as the stew as possible, but the fool’s chew would not be denied. It did its work too well.
The rush of bile burst from his mouth and exploded outwards in a cough, bits of stew and fool’s chew flying into the fire. He coughed again, bending over double as his throat was wracked with spasms.
The pain blossomed suddenly, burning like a knife to the gut. Sucking in with a wheezing inhale, Jao fell to his knees, gasping for air as his throat swelled shut. A second wave of bile rushed forth and splattered onto the ground, the meager remaining contents of his stomach mixing with the mud. A syrupy string of saliva hung from his lips, the other end clinging to his shirt, and yet, Jao couldn’t stop his lips from twisting into a smile. The fool’s chew had done its work.
Chuul jumped to his feet, stew spraying across the ground as he threw his bowl aside. He grabbed Jao by his collar and drug him to his feet.
“What did you do?” he screamed, lifting Jao entirely off the ground and shaking him. “What did you do, damnit?”
Weak from vomiting and the interrupted work of the white mistress, Jao’s eyes rolled, unfocused. The world was a blur. His head sagged to one side and he saw the others, standing ready with their hands on their swords.
For a moment, everything was fine. Then one of them swayed, then dropped. He collapsed to the ground, clutching his throat and choking for air as his legs kicked about to no avail. Another followed, then another.
“You little bastard!” Chuul yelled, shaking him again.
Jao’s eyes came to rest on the boy with the patchy beard. He wore a look of shock as he watched his companions’ throats swell shut. He felt his chest with both hands, confused, then slowly slumped to the ground with a gasping exhale. His eye darted frantically, then came to meet Jao’s own. There was something in there. A wordless cry for mercy, almost. Jao had once been a gentle man, but that was a long time ago. The boy’s cry for mercy went unanswered.
“I’m going to kill you! I’m going…to…” Chuul’s grip loosened as fear crept through his features. Feeling his throat with one hand and steadying himself with the other, he dropped Jao and stumbled backwards. One foot kicked through the fire, scattering coals as he collapsed.
Head pounding with each movement, Jao rolled onto his stomach from where Chuul had dropped him. He crawled to his knees, feeling the swelling in his own throat loosen. He held himself steady for several moments as his head cleared and the wrenching pain in his stomach subsided. With each breath his strength returned, little by little until he was able to pull himself to his feet.
The stew rested still on the tree stump, bubbling quietly while Chuul and his men writhed on the ground, fighting against the unrelenting kiss of the white mistress.
Wiping the stringy saliva from his chin, Jao walked over to Chuul. Hands at his own throat, the big man spasmed and whimpered. He moved his mouth as if to speak, soundless words dissipating into the night. His eyes darted back and forth before coming to rest on Jao.
Calming his clawing fingers, the big man spoke in slow, forced movements, voice naught but a whisper.
“I’m sorry, say again?” Jao said, leaning over the fallen brute with a self-satisfied smile.
Chuul worked his mouth again and his voice hissed forth like a dagger sliding from its sheath.
Jao smiled wider as he kneeled and leaned over his former captor.
“I prepared a feast, you murderous bastard. A feast in honor of my friends, and my dead brother.” He swept his arms out wide to encompass all of the writhing bodies around the dimming campfire. “Was it to your liking?”
Chuul tried to speak again, his face blooming more and more red.
“Once more?” Jao put his ear over the dying man’s mouth. He wanted to hear the bastard’s last words. Wanted to savor them.
Instead, Chuul’s fist slammed into his neck and Jao stumbled backwards as the big man’s spasming ceased for good.
“You—” Jao began, before finding his airway blocked. Something warm ran down his chest as he raised a hand to his throat to find the hilt of Chuul’s dagger buried in his neck.
He hardly had time to think as the shock overtook him. He tried to speak, tried to shout one last curse at the dead man before him, but all that came out was a wet gurgle as his strength left him. He slipped to the ground, then tilted over sideways. He hit the mud with a thunk, hands still working at the blade in his throat.
Slowly, his movements stilled and his choked cries faded to nothing but a red blossom of bubbles leaking from his throat. With one last slow blink, his eyes came to rest on the stars above, an endless sky filled with light as everything faded to black.
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